MP candidate withdraws after stammering abuse

A man wearing a parliamentary rosette
Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson, who was in the running to become an Liberal Democrat MP, has stepped down following a series of hateful comments and mockery aimed at his stammer.

The former candidate for the constituency of Kettering released a statement this week announcing his decision to withdraw, saying it was "a direct result of the accumulation of abuse that I have received towards both my stammer and my personal safety from members of our local community".

The decision comes amid growing concern about the physical safety of MPs in recent months, following increased levels of threats and violence. Mr Nelson tells of how, as a candidate, he has had to face physical intimidation and verbal abuse on the doorsteps, even being chased. His stammer has been the target too, with online trolls mocking the way he talks. 

The final straw came when parliamentary colleagues mimicked Mr Nelson's speech and described it as 'an embarrassment'. You can read his full statement below.

Stammering remains the disability that it is politically acceptable to mock and belittle, and I refuse to be a part of it.

Chris Nelson

In condemnation of the behaviour that forced Mr Nelson to step down, STAMMA's CEO Jane Powell said, "The consequences of mocking people because they talk differently can be, as in Mr Nelson's case, career changing. It is unacceptable. For this to happen in a political environment, one which seems to encourage bullying and prize fluency over content, should shame all our politicians. 

'This is harassment. Harassment is subjecting someone to unwanted conduct relevant protected characteristics, where the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating the victim's dignity or creating an environment that is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. As such it is against the law."

As a society we shouldn't devalue what people say because of how they say it. MPs need to model the behaviour that we want to see generally."

Mr Nelson goes on to say, "Stammering remains the disability that it is politically acceptable to mock and belittle, and I refuse to be a part of it".

Every year here at STAMMA, we deal with over a 1,000 phone calls, emails and webchats from parents of stammering children and people who stammer, some who believe they've been discriminated against because of how they talk. Through our Advocacy Service, which we introduced last year, we take on complaints like Mr Nelson's, to help cement their case that such behaviour is illegal.

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Chris Nelson's statement in full

"It is with great regret that I must now announce and explain my withdrawal from consideration as a parliamentary candidate for Kettering constituency, which is a direct result of the accumulation of abuse that I have received towards both my stammer and my personal safety from members of our local community. 

Having been the most recent Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in my hometown of Kettering, and convinced that candidates are important to give the voters a choice, my personal wellbeing has nonetheless caused me to decline offers to be renominated. This reflects a growing national trend of abuse towards politicians, as reported in the national press, causing a shortage of parliamentary candidates in all parties. I am sure that there will be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Kettering, who I look forward to supporting, but I understand the difficulties that this will cause my colleagues.

When I was first selected as Lib Dem candidate for Kettering in 2010, as possibly the youngest person to do so, I was deeply honoured to stand as one of only a handful of people with an openly audible stammer to have stood for Parliament in the modern era. I stood knowing that, despite over half a million audibly stammering adults in the UK, jokes about and discrimination against stammering remains socially acceptable for many in both society and the media.

I expected to weather robust and sometimes emotional political debate, as a necessary part of the political process. I was not, however, prepared for the deeply personal abuse that would follow, the extent to which a minority of voters and fellow politicians would abuse me, and the extent to which the police and other authorities would be institutionally reluctant to assist.

The abuse that I have endured has proved intolerable - even if I must acknowledge it to be but a fraction of that weathered by women and ethnic minority candidates. Whether aimed directly at my stammer, or the simple abuse of the playground bully, I have been physically squared up to on the doorstep, verbally abused and physically chased on the street, had audio recordings of radio broadcasts used to mock my speech online, witnessed ordinary voters fantasise about hanging me from a lamppost, as well as writing to my employer to demand that I be sacked. From other politicians, too, I have either witnessed or been informed of cruel personal jokes, mocking of my speech, seen my disability described as “an embarrassment” , and was notably informed of one politician who used an election count to gleefully ask a colleague “How’s C-C-C-C-C-Chris doing?”. Such abuse is not only puerile, it is made with impunity.

Having endured all of the above with grace, the final straw for me came in August 2023 where one of those politicians - who I had come to forgive and began to regard as a friend - abused my stammer in a public street not far from my own home. This incident was recorded as a disability-related hate incident by Northamptonshire Police, who I nonetheless had to beg through tears even to agree to interview the sitting councillor who had witnessed the incident. The Police decided not to even interview the perpetrator, sending merely a warning letter. I continue to receive counselling. They remain an active member of the local political community.

When I have stood as a parliamentary candidate on four separate occasions I did so not with any high hopes of victory but as a service to our political life. Whilst I am proud of all four campaigns, I did so like so many others do: to fly the flag for a strand of political thought that deserves a representative, and to give the voters a choice. Thousands of others do exactly the same in every general election: they are the lifeblood of our democracy, yet as this week's report on abuse against politicians relates, the growing levels of abuse means more and more people like me are being driven out of the political process. 

As a stammerer, with the abuse that I have suffered, it is difficult to believe that this is getting any better. When Ed Balls stammered in response to the 2012 Budget, he was abused mercilessly. In the last General Election, a national newspaper group praised as “absolutely perfect” a YouTube video which shamefully put together a compilation of a politician's stammering under the jaunty title of “It’s Stammer Time”. Even this year, as Donald Trump has openly mocked and mimicked Joe Biden's stammer, British media outlets have continued to report his abuse without criticism. 

Whilst abuse is only ever done by a minority, the decent majority continues to fail in challenging and calling it out. Stammering remains the disability that it is politically acceptable to mock and belittle, and I refuse to be a part of it. 

This June my family will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Normandy, where my grandfather Arthur Nelson fought bravely, and was scarred for life by this experience. When thinking of him I am forced to notice he was sent there by a stammering Prime Minister, appointed by a stammering King, commanded by a general appointed by a physically disabled US President. 80 years later, such tolerance and respect seems almost unthinkable.

I remain grateful for the support of my political party and call on all political parties - and all members of society - to do more to challenge the torrent of abuse we are tolerating in our body politic. If we do not do more to protect the people that make our political process work, it is democracy that will pay the price."

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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